In a momentous judgment published yesterday on the case of Svinarenko and Slyadnev v. Russia, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found that holding a person in a metal cage during trial constitutes in itself an ‘affront to human dignity’.
The defendants, charged with a number of offences including robbery with the use of violence, committed as members of a gang while in pre-trial detention, had been placed in a metal cage during the court hearings, measuring about 1.5 by 2.5 metres. Armed guards remained beside the cage.
The practice was (re)introduced in Russia in 1994 based on an unpublished ministerial order, which the Court suggested was problematic in itself with regard to the rule of law.
The Russian government had argued that recourse to a cage was justified given the violent nature of the charges, the defendants’ criminal records and the fears of victims and witnesses of the defendants’ unlawful behaviour.
The Court, however, was not convinced that holding the defendants in a cage was a necessary means of preventing escape or dealing with disorderly or aggressive behaviour, and held that it could ‘only be understood as a means of degrading and humiliating the caged person’.
The Court reasoned that exposing the defendants to the public eye in a cage ‘must have undermined their image and must have aroused in them feelings of humiliation, helplessness, fear, anguish and inferiority’, even more so as the jury trial lasted more than a year, with several hearings almost every month in front of a large number of witnesses. The hearings were also open to the public.
Importantly, the judgment also captures the undermining impact of such a treatment on the presumption of innocence, stating that ‘the applicants must have had objectively justified fears that their exposure in a cage during court hearings conveyed to their judges a negative image of them as being dangerous, thus undermining the presumption of innocence’.
Consequently, the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of Article 3, the prohibition of torture and of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It also found a breach of Article 6(1), the right to be tried within a reasonable time, given the significant delays in the criminal procedure attributable to the State, noting that the defendants’ detention on remand required particular diligence to administer justice expeditiously.
Read the judgment
On the use of restraints in prisons in general, see PRI’s factsheet on Instruments of restraint, part of our Detention Monitoring Tool.